A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for this week’s episode, “The Last of the Starks,” coming up.
“The Last of the Starks” is a real structural oddity. For nearly an hour, it moves at a leisurely pace, as the good guys at Winterfell mourn their fallen comrades and celebrate their improbable victory over the Night King. And then the remaining 30-odd minutes are overloaded with huge, abrupt plot twists: Euron kills one of Dany’s remaining dragons! Cersei is holding both Missandei and the entire population of King’s Landing hostage against Dany’s remaining army! Varys and Tyrion are talking treason about their increasingly erratic queen! Missandei gets the Ned Stark treatment! Dany is ready to burn the whole place to the ground, just like her father!
We could talk about a lot of weirdness from that latter third. Or we could dwell on Jon not so much as petting Ghost goodbye as a symbol of Benioff and Weiss’ ambivalence to many of the fantasy elements George R.R. Martin handed them. Or lament Bronn and Tormund sitting out the remaining battles, or dissect the utter calamity that was Sansa’s assertion to the Hound that she’s a better and stronger person only because of all the rape and emotional torture that Martin and the showrunners put her through.
But Varys and Tyrion’s debate feels most pertinent this week. The Night King was disposed of with relative ease. Every sensible character left is treating Cersei’s defeat as inevitable — when Bronn doesn’t believe at all in her chances, it suggests the showrunners don’t either. So the endgame at the moment looks like Auntie Dany vs. Nephew Jon. This makes the Mother of Dragons’ top advisors unhappy from what both men can see she’s becoming. But it’s also frustrating because it’s a reminder that the series has put its remaining eggs in the dullest basket possible.
Look, the central characters in any sprawling ensemble drama like this will always fall victim to a degree to Protagonist’s Syndrome. They carry such a heavy plot burden that they can never be quite as much fun, or as complex, as the supporting players. But even by those standards, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen have long been a drag on a show that’s increasingly been concentrating on them at the expense of all others. He’s a well-meaning dim bulb short on charisma. She can be exciting on occasion when she’s cursing in Valyrian and burning stuff, but put her in a room just to talk with virtually anyone left on the show and she’s at risk of fading into the nearest wall hanging.
“The Last of the Starks” pushes hard on the idea that Jon’s stronger claim to the Iron Throne, coupled with all her recent losses, has Dany on the verge of going full Mad Queen and burning everyone to cinder and ash. But it never feels solid enough. The script races through the transition, piling one personality-altering event on top of the next so that none of them gets to breathe and let the viewers feel how much it’s affecting her(*). And it’s been a very long time since she was the wise and compassionate ruler that Tyrion keeps insisting she can be.
(*) Game of Thrones has often treated its episodes as loose collections of plot in chronological order. This one, though, felt like two episodes awkwardly stapled together because Benioff and Weiss, for whatever reason, only wanted to make six this year. Perhaps they feared that making three of the season’s first four episodes into extended Winterfell hangouts might test the patience of viewers who care more about dragons and action and plot twists. But the post-drinking game scenes would have done better taking up an entire episode, if not two, and it probably wouldn’t have required shooting much extra footage to make that happen.
So when Tyrion and Varys verbally joust in the Dragonstone throne room, there are two enormous problems occurring at once. First, Tyrion is arguing for a version of Dany that long since ceased to exist. To a degree, this is part of the text of the scene. But Varys isn’t the type to mince words in moments like this. That he doesn’t go as hard at Tyrion on this point as he could suggests Benioff and Weiss are, like Tyrion, a bit blind to what their Khaleesi has become, or at least would rather the viewers not fully realize it until things get worse next week.
More importantly, though, you have two of the show’s most vividly-etched figures (played by two of the best actors in the whole ensemble) arguing over which flavor of vanilla would be the most exciting to serve at the end of this 73-episode meal. The writers haven’t served Tyrion particularly well in a while (his recent conversations with Sansa excepted), and Varys has always played a limited-by-design role in things, but it’s not hard to wish that they were somehow the top two contenders to replace Cersei. Or that Sansa and Bronn, or Gilly and Davos, or nearly any random surviving duo you could name, were at the front of the line for when Cersei finally leaves the balcony where she’s been standing smugly all season.
Some of this problem is just the nature of the story the showrunners inherited from Martin. A lot of it, though, is on how they’ve chosen to adapt that story and failed to compensate for this gaping flaw at the center of it.
Given how rapidly and randomly the plot unfolded near the end of this episode, it’s possible that one or both of our two main characters will be dead by the 15-minute mark next week, and that all this garment-rending about which one is more deserving will prove moot. But they look like the endgame right now, which feels incredibly underwhelming after all the figures who’ve crossed that screen over the past seven-plus seasons.
“Each of us has a choice to make,” Varys says near the tail end of his debate with Tyrion. “I pray we choose wisely.”
If these are the final two choices, the only way to win the Game may be not to play.
Previously: To Kill a King